The Fifth Commandment – You Shall Not Kill

by admin on September 2, 2011

«You shall not kill, (Deut 5 : 17)

With this commandment, God forbids any attempt against human life. To decide when a life is to end is a right which God has reserved for Himself alone. Therefore, it is not lawful for us to destroy human life, even if it is only in embryo.

This prohibition against murder, which God has laid on humanity, is placed before us in various parts of Sacred Scripture: The story of Cain and Abel, sons of Adam and Eve, is a clear example:

«Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the due course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offerings, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door, its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field. “And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. (…) you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth. ” Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me this day away from the ground; and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me. “

Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. “And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden.  (Gen 4, 2-16).

This passage in Sacred Scripture gives us some marvellous teaching about this commandment of God: You shall not kill. The first thought that occurs to me is this: in spite of the fact that Cain was his brother’s assassin, the Lord did not allow anyone to kill Cain himself. The right to send death to anyone when He so wills it is one that God reserves to Him­self. God acts in this way so as to allow time for repentance and penance.

If, instead of becoming embittered because of his punishment and fearing to be killed himself, Cain had acknowledged his sin and humbly asked the Lord’s forgiveness, he would certainly have been pardoned. But, instead of this act of humility and confidence in the goodness of God, he flew into a passion.

Possibly, Cain was afraid that somebody, knowing what he had done to his brother, would want to avenge Abel’s death by doing the same to him. But God also forbids murder as a form of revenge, so He took steps to ensure that the crime was not repeated and further sin committed. With this commandment, God forbids the sin of vengeance, because this is an act of rebellion, provoked by excessive pride. We cannot, therefore, take revenge on our neighbour, nor should we punish offenders in a spirit of vengeance.

In cases where those in authority find themselves obliged to punish crime in order to maintain order, the punishment must always be accom­panied by a spirit of charity with regard both to the common good and towards the guilty person, so that he may acknowledge his crime, repent of it and be ready to amend his life.

Normally, we do not take into account certain kinds of slow death inflicted on people and, yet, these, too, are weighed in God’s balance. The injustice which one or other of our neighbours is often made to suffer; the calumny by which they are robbed of their good name, their personal dignity and the respect which is their due; the abuse by which they are deprived of their rights; and many other things of this kind, on account of which our neighbour suffers a kind of martyrdom and which bring about a slow death.

When Jesus Christ was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, St. Peter, wanting to defend his Master, took a sword and attacked one of the soldiers, cutting off his ear. But the Lord healed the wound and said to Peter: «Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.f (Mt 26, 52). This means that every crime has a pun­ishment and is forbidden and rejected by God. Not even in defence of Himself did the Lord allow St. Peter to use a sword. That does not mean that, in case of attack, we cannot defend ourselves, but it does mean that we cannot attack our neighbour unjustly and can do so only if forced by the need of self-defence.

Returning to the case of Cain and Abel, we find there an admonition combined with an order given to Cain by God, one which we cannot pass over without serious reflection:* Why are you angry, and why has your coun­tenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must overcorme it (Gen 4, 6-7). We should all identify which temptation it is that assails us most frequently, and tries to drag us on to the wrong path; in other words, which is the sin that, as God said to Cain, has most appeal for us. We must overcome it, as God asked: “You must overcome it”. In fact, every sin brings with it a sentence of eternal death because it is a transgression of God’s Law: «But the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die  (Gen 2,17). We could read this phrase as follows: if you transgress my commands, you will incur the pen­alty of death, or of eternal damnation. Every sin falls within the scope of this sentence, because all sin is a transgression of God’s law, bringing with it eternal death and, very often, temporal death also; consequently, it is never lawful for us to sacrifice either our neighbour’s life, or our own. This commandment is absolute:  You shall not kill.

Jesus Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, confirms this divine com­mandment, saying: « You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; who­ever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.» Mt 5 : 21-22).

The Lord said: “He will be liable to judgement”. In fact, anyone who commits this crime can still be saved, if he is willing to repent, ask pardon and undertake some penance, making reparation as far as possible for the harm caused to his neighbours.


Click Here to see the List of The Ten Commandments with 122 Questions to Examine Your Conscience with.

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